Marcus did not exactly know that he was dying. The last time I saw him, he was sick and very frightened—no one, including he himself, knew, however, how very sick he was.
It was 1987. Heartthrob Rock Hudson had been dead less than two years; people were still questioning the validity of that horrific cover on the National Enquirer showing the emaciated leading man, the first celebrity to announce publicly that he was infected with something called AIDS. Unlike Hudson, teenage hemophiliac and AIDS victim Ryan White, in 1987, was fearlessly trying to educate a dangerously prejudiced world that heterosexuals, too, were at risk for AIDS. In those early days of the epidemic, even men and women who regarded themselves as civilized were responding with unwarranted anger, even violence, toward the victims of the disease. We experienced a kind of moral depression, a sort of primitive renaissance—fearful people, truly fearful people, behaving savagely in the face of ill-defined and undiagnosed danger. It was the new plague, the era’s Black Death, and even people of goodwill were its ignorant hosts. Ironically, the world would do better, later, when more people became infected. In 1987, AIDS was still a disease that happened to other people.
Under the most peculiar of circumstances, Marcus, after fifteen years, had come back into my life in 1987. If I had been the kind who believed in fate— No, it was only coincidence, extraordinary coincidence, that brought him back into my life.
I was at the University of Florida, a graduate student. At 38, I was older than most of my peers in the Creative Writing Program, and I felt awkward and lonely—until I met and fell in love with Johnny Deese Prescott, another older student, a gifted and passionate poet from swamp lands of Georgia. A recovering alcoholic, Johnny Deese had a violent temper— he warned me going into the relationship, but I chose to ignore his eccentric behavior, the little secret vignettes he perpetrated against his many perceived enemies, the deep hatreds and jealousies he harbored, for both faculty and fellow students. I ignored it all— until one dangerous night. I remember how he had pinned me down on the bed, his fingers pressing tightly around my throat, the wild look in his eyes. “Don’t mess with me, woman!” he yelled. He didn’t hurt me that night. Releasing me, we both turned toward our separate walls, and I pretended to sleep. I pretended, and I planned: I’d wait for him to fall asleep. Then, I would take the iron lamp by the bed and bash his head in. Murder? I would never know.
Moments later, he spoke to me again, calmly, almost tenderly: “Should I call you a cab?”
I saw him on campus the next day. He was contrite, remorseful even. He wanted us to go into counseling, together. I wanted to laugh. I told him that was impossible. How could he think of such a possibility? I had known other women, abuse victims, who fell into that trap. As a friend, I had advised them against getting involved with violent men. “They don’t change, you know.” I wasn’t going to be a victim. I had a future. He wasn’t going to destroy that. Nobody was going to destroy that. More important, I no longer loved him, no longer felt anything for him. He had threatened and humiliated me. It was over. Dead.
A few weeks later, Johnny Deese called me at 3 a.m. He was frantic. He wanted to come to my apartment—just to talk, he said. I refused, told him it was over. He begged me, and then said if I wouldn’t see him, he was going to kill himself before sunrise—his blood would be on my hands. “Emotional blackmail, Johnny Deese,” I told him. “It won’t work with me.” I then hung up.
He called back. “Please,” he said, “I just want to see you. I’m desperate. Please. See me— one last time. Help me get through this, just this once.”
I hesitated. Against my better judgment, I relented. “OK. But you’re not coming to my apartment. We’ll meet somewhere, somewhere public. We can have coffee—at The Clock. I will meet you there in about fifteen minutes.”
Ten minutes later, I drove up to The Clock Restaurant. The parking lot was almost empty: two cars parked in the rear of the building; another car, belonging to Johnny Deese, was parked by the side door. I parked under the ten-foot high clock that dominated the front of the black and white building. It was 3:15 a.m. I could see Johnny Deese through the glass, seated at the first booth by the door. There were no other customers.
I walked in, took the seat opposite him. His cup of black coffee was nearly empty—he’d been there, no doubt, for several minutes, at least. I now suspected that he had called from my neighborhood, perhaps from The Clock, perhaps, even, from the phone booth across the street from my apartment. Unwilling to ignore a potential threat, I asked him. He said he had called from his place. He was lying, and I knew it. I was afraid, but mostly I was pissed off. Had he been watching me? If so, for how long?
The waiter took my order, brought me a coffee. The only other person in the building was the cook, a bleary eyed elderly man in a greasy t-shirt and baggy jeans. I said little. John Deese apologized for his anger, his rage. He really loved me, he said, would never really hurt me. Maybe things could be different—he’d gone to the edge this time; he’d learned his lesson. “Not with me,” I said. “It’s over.”
Johnny Deese began to weep softly. We sat silently for several incredibly awkward minutes. Mercifully, the bell above the door behind me jingled; the door opened. Another customer, I assumed—perhaps another troubled soul who, for whatever reason, had given up on sleep, had come to The Clock to drink strong coffee and wait out this wasted night.
The customer, a man, walked past me, took the next booth, directly behind Johnny Deese. He sat down, opposite me. Unavoidably, the man and I fell squarely into each other’s eyes. Incredibly, insanely, it was Marcus. He recognized me, too. I could see that in his eyes.
He was gaunt, which actually made him seem strangely taller than I had remembered. His face was blotchy and grey; his long, blond hair, which had always bothered his blue eyes, was now combed back, stiff and somewhat gray. His skin seemed wet, oily, the result, he would tell me later, of a mild fever that had not subsided in months. (Several doctors had failed, thus far, to diagnose his strange symptoms correctly.) Despite the physical changes, he was still Marcus: “Older, only that,” I told myself. (I had changed, grown older, too.)
I then laughed. Johnny Deese looked puzzled. It was now 3:40 a.m. (the clock outside, which was always lit up, offered the time up brazenly). Here I was, three hours before sunrise, in a restaurant called “The Clock,” a restaurant that never closes (the irony was ponderously obvious). The building housed five human beings: a cook, a waiter, my ex-husband (whom I had not seen in 15 years), and my ex-boyfriend who would perhaps kill himself, or maybe even me, before sunrise. I couldn’t explain this when Johnny Deese asked me what was wrong, why I was laughing. I could only manage, “Look, kill yourself if you want. I am going home. Don’t come to my house, to my neighborhood ever again. Ever again.”
And then I left The Clock Restaurant. I never spoke to Johnny Deese again.
At a downtown used bookstore, I saw Marcus a week or so later. We embraced. We talked. He had, as I suspected, recognized me that morning at The Clock. I invited him to dinner. It was to be the last time we were together before he died.
I want to write honestly about him, about us. He has been dead for twenty-five years now. I wish he could know that it hasn’t been easy growing old. I am angry, but I also feel— after all these years—guilty about my anger. At my age, displaying old wounds is unattractive. He did, after all, die, and that’s hardly the easy way out—I am still young enough to believe that.
I have memories, of course. We were both freshmen in high school. We spent many of our afternoons by the lake behind the Catholic Church that first summer. He painted my portrait as I rested against a weeping willow whose branches and leaves swept gently across the face of the lake—one could feel the cool breeze in the picture. (In reality, it was August, in Florida, and the stiff air was motionless, the afternoons often uncomfortable). I have to admit that the picture of the girl, although good, did not resemble me in the slightest. Did he not see that? No, I don’t think so, not consciously. Nonetheless, looking back, I realize his failure to capture me on canvas was probably significant, for he was, at fourteen, already a very accomplished artist. The blue of her dress was the color of sky, an absolute blue, and like nothing else. The tree against which she lazily rested was so realistically rendered that it suggested that one tree to which all other trees would be, forever after, compared. It was as if the artist had, in his genuine effort (and unconscious failure) to paint the actual girl he loved had, instead, compensated with perfect style and composition. The girl in the blue dress was beautiful, and she was not me.
That so lovely a setting could be so utterly wrong does not matter now. Fifteen years before he died, Marcus gave away his paints and brushes, his pastels and oils, his easel (the same he used at the lake). He destroyed dozens of paintings and scores of sketchbooks. And he left me, without apology or explanation, he joined a cult in Columbia, South America, swore himself to poverty, and discarded all of the earthly possessions that had mattered to him since childhood. His gift—which, without modesty, he understood to be a genuine gift—he offered up as a sacrifice for a newer, purer kind of life. He never painted again, and all evidence of his life as an artist, presumably, has been lost or destroyed.
I never understood. At his memorial, his family and a few friends said prayers, offered accolades and regrets for the loss of one who had had so much promise. I managed a perfect detachment from him, from our life together, from that moment on. The girl, who was now a woman, stood silently aside, listened to others and then said to herself: “Such is life,” and “one never knows,” and “life goes on.” Et cetera.
I have other memories, of course—another August, a few years after that embarrassing painting. It was the summer before college. Marcus, who had a car by then, would drive to my house on Saturday evenings. We often took walks from my family’s house to the Gulfport Casino, about two miles away. The Casino was located on Boca Ciega Bay, a small inlet of Tampa Bay near St. Petersburg, Florida. The Casino was built three times: the first, in 1906, was used as a station for people waiting for ferry boats. With the second renovation in 1924, the Gulfport Casino became a regular social institution of the Roaring Twenties for the Tampa Bay area. The last construction, in 1934, included a 5000-square-foot hardwood dance floor, a full bar, and an art deco band shell large enough for a fifty-piece orchestra. The Casino entrance faced Shore Boulevard; the back windows faced the beach along Boca Ciega Bay. It was a gaudy piece of architecture, was meant to be. For the first six or seven years, the music and décor changed with the times, but it was the 1940s, the war years, that came to define the Casino. The USO held nightly dances for soldiers and sailors and airmen stationed in Tampa. Traditionally, servicemen partied at the Casino the night before being shipped out. For many it would be their last dance. There were plenty of girls: high school kids seeking their first fling, nurses, secretaries. Dancing with enlisted men was patriotic—and so very romantic.
After the war, many of the soldiers came back to Gulfport. Many were married at the Casino. They and their wives raised families in Gulfport, and on Friday and Saturday nights, they danced at the Casino. They danced there even after their young families grew up and moved away. It became their ballroom, and they were obsessed with keeping it just the way it was in 1941 before they shipped out for the Pacific or in 1944 before many left for Normandy. For twenty years, someone always found a new 48-star flag to hang behind the band shell. Eventually, the wives grew fat and gray, and the husbands grew bald and harmlessly flirtatious. In the Gulfport Casino ball room, however,time stood still every Friday and Saturday night.
We waited until late—until the hot day gave in to evening, under the slight relief of a dark and starry sky. It is in darkness (which the young perennially seek out) that ancient instincts overwhelm. How clearly I was convinced that no one had ever felt what I felt, what we felt. We were surely the first—the first Man and Woman. With shabby approximations, our species had been preparing the world for us for hundreds of thousands of years. Here, between us, on those humid evenings by an insignificant tongue of water, love had finally evolved, had achieved a long-awaited perfection.
One sultry evening, however, dominates my memory. As we walked along 55th Street South, the whirl of window fans filled the air, competing with the electric hum of hordes of invisible insects, some of which flew around our sweaty faces or scurried unseen across the sidewalk in front of our feet. The spinning blades of the fans sliced the glare of television screens into staccato pieces across dark living rooms in house after house. People sat on couches and chairs against walls—shadows of bodies, indistinguishable from the furniture on which they sat. We held hands, laughed at them, glad not to be a part of their deadly routines. Our lives, we felt, were being directed by finer things, pulled through the universe by stronger, higher energies. Someday, Marcus would be a great artist, and I would be a great writer—everyone knew it.
Eventually, 55th Street turned into Beach Boulevard. Looking west toward Boca Ciega Bay, we could see the Casino’s round façade, squatting on Shore Boulevard, the lights flickering out the windows illuminating the water that surrounded the building on three sides. As we approached, we could feel the percussions—those initial, unmusical vibrations—slowly blending into harmonic sound and the spontaneous distinctions of trumpet, trombone, saxophone, piano. Two blocks from the building, we could make out the male voice of the band’s soloist: “Bye, Bye Blackbird.” A block away, we could distinguish words of old songs, hits to which our grandparents had danced when they were our age: jitterbug, varsity drag, the Charleston. We could hear laughter, shouting. The building itself, against the undulation of tide and a slight and dizzy breeze, seemed to move to the beat of the music and the natural rhythms of the nights—the flashy stars, the full, throbbing yellow moon, and the bump and grind of tree toads. It was, suddenly, the era of gangsters and flappers, speakeasies and bathtub gin, and unambiguous, intoxicating sin.
We took a position at one of the windows, behind some palm trees. Inside, the crystal lights swirled overhead, casting chards of light upon the wooden dance floor, upon the faces and bodies of the dancers. The musicians crowded the band shell, the lead singers—a man and a woman—singing tunes from both the near and distant past. The dancers moved about unselfconsciously: bald-headed, red-faced men in pastel suits and polished loafers; gray-haired women in low-cut gowns and gaudy earrings and bracelets, necklaces lost in ample cleavages.
“Old fools,” I laughed.
“No,” Marcus protested. He had become very serious. “Not foolish—alive, and they are dancing with people they have shared a life time with. I think they are beautiful and brave and I envy them—I don’t know exactly why, but I do.”
I didn’t understand then what he meant (he, I suspect, hardly knew). I looked from his eyes back into the dance hall. It was then that one of the dancers caught my attention, a woman perhaps my grandmother’s age, in a blue chiffon dress. She looked familiar, an image framed by the window into which I looked—I don’t know, perhaps she just had that kind of face. The band was playing a ballad, the dancers were moving slowly now, in small, intimate circles. Her arms were wrapped about the shoulders of her partner, but she was now looking beyond her lover, out the window—my window. I imagined sadness in her stare—what made her so sad? What heaviness had she been reminded of in the darkness beyond the ballroom, beyond the window where I stood watching?
The night felt suddenly heavy. The future, of which I did not have a clear picture, intervened dangerously close. I refused to recognize such feelings, such forebodings. I would not share them, not even with Marcus (especially with Marcus), and so I turned away quickly.
“We should go home,” I said.
“Yes. We should go home,” he said.
I swore to myself never to visit the Casino again, and I have kept that promise.
In the fall, Marcus and I entered the University of Florida. A year later, we were married. Three years later—not yet twenty-three years old—we were divorced. We were to have separate lives, in other places, other countries even. For fifteen years, we had no part in each other’s lives. My life, I believe, has been satisfactory. Marcus? I do not really know.
After our encounter at the bookstore, he came to my apartment one time for dinner. It was to be the last time we would see each other. He ate very little. He hadn’t had much of an appetite for weeks now, he said, and continued to lose weight. Marcus brought over his VCR, and we watched a movie (“Stand by Me,” I believe). Afterwards, we talked. Marcus seemed uncharacteristically agitated. Although he had aged light years beyond the carefree and optimistic boy I had loved, he was not just older. He was different. He was sick but spoke little of his illness, much about his unfulfilled life. Urgently, regretfully, he said, “I’ve lived thirty-eight years—half of my life—and I have nothing to show for it.”
Two months later, Marcus was dead.
I don’t think of him much nowadays. I don’t remember what it felt like to be sixteen years old and to be in love and to feel such bottomless hope. I do sometimes revisit my memories of the Casino, that summer before college, but I have remained faithful to my decision never to go there again. Too often, too, I remember the woman in the blue dress and remember the look in her eyes, which now, I believe, was not sadness.
It was, instead, the look of (the recognition of) despair. And was it the night, the darkness, into which she had stared, from which some strange, foreboding epiphany had come to her? And was it her despair? I cannot know, of course, but as I have said, my life has been satisfactory. Utterly satisfactory.
About the Author: MaryJo Thomas has published in The American Poetry Review, California Quarterly, Yarrow, Roanoke Review, Appalachian Heritage, The Gettysburg Review, and other literary journals. She has also worked as a freelance journalist, copyeditor, and copy writer. For many years, she was a college professor at Berea College in Kentucky where she taught American literature, creative writing, and general studies. She now lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her sister, Betsy, and their rescued cats and dogs.